It's the economy, stupid—again. The mantra of Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign has come back with a roar and a vengeance, generated by public anxiety over the Wall Street meltdown, fears of a deep recession, and the government's moves toward a vast, multibillion-dollar "rescue" plan.
As a result, the 2008 presidential race, which had seemed stuck in place with neither Republican John McCain nor Democrat Barack Obama able to break away, has suddenly shifted gears—to Obama's advantage. The crisis propelled him to a lead nationally and, more important, enabled him to surge ahead or leap into a competitive position in key battleground states that will determine who wins a majority in the Electoral College on November 4.
"The economy has presented itself so forcefully that it really has driven out everything else," says Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker. "In a so-called normal year, we would also be talking about cultural and social issues, personal issues, war and peace issues." But this is not a normal year. And Baker says the bad economy, following past patterns, will benefit a "challenger" like Obama because "people blame the incumbent president's party" for a downturn. That's bad news for McCain.
Fifty-two percent of Americans now consider the country's financial situation a crisis and an additional 41 percent believe it is a serious problem, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll. And 50 percent trust Obama more to handle the economy while only 43 percent prefer McCain.
Bush's shadow. Another problem for McCain is his seeming inability to escape the shadow of Republican President George W. Bush. Only 26 percent of voters in the Post/ABC poll approve of the way Bush is handling his job and 70 percent disapprove. Obama rarely misses a chance to link the two men, as he did at a recent Colorado rally when he declared: "We can't afford to gamble on four more years of the same disastrous economic policies we've had for the last eight."
For his part, McCain has been scrambling to find another game-changer. He argues that Obama would make the economy worse by raising taxes and imposing too much government intervention. But some GOP strategists say McCain needs to get much tougher and attack Obama on other fronts, such as his connections to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his controversial former pastor in Chicago, and William Ayers, a former violent left-wing radical.
McCain tried to gain traction by accusing Obama of being too passive in the first days of the financial crisis, while McCain returned to Washington to help round up votes for the "rescue" package. The GOP nominee failed to persuade enough Republican legislators to approve the bill in the crucial first go-round, casting doubt on his effectiveness. But McCain argued that he showed leadership while Obama sat back. "This is a moment of great testing," he told a rally in Missouri. "At such moments, there are those on both sides of this debate who will act on principle."
Both Obama and McCain ended up voting for a modified version of Bush's plan in the Senate, which approved it 74 to 25 on October 1. It's unclear, however, whether legislative action will fix the problem or whether the economy will continue to deteriorate. Adding to voters' frustration is that the biggest problem facing the country now rests squarely in the hands of the same Washington elites that Americans have come to disdain.
Of course, given all that's happened in this exceedingly volatile campaign, it's possible that other issues could shift the campaign back in McCain's direction. Political scientist Baker points out that many swing voters still have their doubts about whether Obama, a liberal newcomer and the first African-American nominee of a major party, truly understands their problems and will fight for them. "If Barack Obama was a more conventional candidate," Baker says, "he would be up by 15 points."
Ahead or surging. Still, as the crisis intensified, Obama moved ahead of McCain nationally, with the Post/ABC poll giving Obama a 50 to 46 percent lead among likely voters. More important, Obama is now ahead or surging in most of the key swing states. For example, polls show that he leads or is competitive in the megastates of Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and in the smaller but crucial states of Colorado, Missouri, and Virginia.